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Chapter 24: Promises Broken.

If you wish to be a success in the world
promise everything, deliver nothing.

-Napoleon Bonaparte


‘Harry,’ Hermione demanded in a low whisper, trying to free her arm from the grip that had dragged her down the crowded streets after the head of blonde hair that had just disappeared into Knockturn Alley. Whilst she had allowed herself to be manhandled up until this point, the looming entrance to the darkened street had her digging her heels in and fighting back. For his part Harry released her arm quickly, and with a faint appearance of guilt as Hermione straightened her top, scowling at the stretched sleeve and shooting Harry a decidedly scolding look. ‘We can’t go down there,’ she said in a tone that declared there could be no arguments, lifting her head authoritatively. She relaxed slightly, with a huff and a small smile, when Harry treated her to an amused grin. ‘No one knows we’ve left the bookshop,’ she said with rather more concern, ‘they won’t be able to find us if anything happens.’ Harry just snorted in disbelief.

‘Trust me, Hermione, everyone always knows where I am.’ He ducked into the shadows just beyond the alley entrance before Hermione could try to stop him, wishing he had had the foresight to bring his invisibility cloak. Fortunately Malfoy’s natural paleness made him stand out like a burst of bright light in the gloom of the alley, especially considering the usual cloaked and shadowed appearance of the occupants. Hermione followed him seconds later, as he had known she would. For all her blustering about breaking the rules, she never failed to flounce straight through them all after either Ron or himself. ‘Besides, I have to do this.’ Reluctant understanding broke apart the worst of Hermione’s infuriated expression.

‘You think you can convince him not to return to school?’ she still regarded him with incredulity, but at least she no longer seemed on the verge of marching him back to either Molly or Remus. Harry took this as a sign of her imminent if not immediate agreement, returning his attention back to the task of spotting Malfoy, craning his neck so he could see over the shoulder of a tall, shrouded hag who had blocked his line of sight.

‘I think I can hex him and drag him somewhere that’ll make his returning pretty bloody difficult.’ Harry just wished Malfoy’s own suggestion of tying him to a tree for the year was more practical. If it happened to be, say, a large, acromantula infested tree, then all the better. He huffed in annoyance at the old woman still in his way, glaring at the back of her head in the vague hope he could make her uncomfortable with the awesome power of his glare alone, thusly causing her to move on. Malfoy had ducked out of sight a few moments ago, leaving Harry unsure whether it was a shop he had entered, or another alley.

‘Like where?’ Hermione suddenly asked shrilly, causing Harry to jump. The old woman also became rapidly aware of their presence, turning in surprise and subjecting Hermione to a critical look, muttering under her breath about the rudeness of filth before her gaze slid inexorably over to Harry. Her eyes widened in recognition, narrowing again quickly as she turned on her heel with surprising grace and hobbled away. Harry just rolled his eyes that she had finally gotten the hint, but Hermione looked considerably more doubtful about his headlong leap into the relatively unknown. ‘Have you even thought this through?’ she whispered, eyes darting nervously around them both. In truth Harry had given his plan about as much thought as he could spare in the minutes since he had spotted the Slytherin across the shop, but he wasn’t about to admit that.

‘I can at least talk to him, explain things…’

Hermione just looked astounded, most probably by the depths of his ignorance if the way she closed her mouth into a thin, pursed line was any indication. ‘Well, at least I can be assured that I won’t miss out on the single most stupid conversation of the year,’ she finally snapped in annoyance, crossing her arms across her chest. ‘You and Malfoy can barely keep a civil tongue at the best of times; what exactly do you think is going to be so different just because, thanks to some obscure twist of fate, you can start this little chat with ‘by the way, your future self told me to say this, so you had better listen.’’

‘If you have any bright ideas of your own, please, feel free to share them,’ Harry bickered, disgruntled not only by the increasingly likely chance that he had lost Malfoy, but by the fact that he was having to have this stupid quarrel when they should have been tracking the Slytherin down all ready.

‘Yes,’ Hermione huffed with exasperation. ‘Lets go back.’

Harry looked at her aghast. ‘He’s going to kill Dumbledore,’ he managed to articulate round his incomprehension at her reluctance. His mood was abruptly skewered into anger at Hermione’s reaction, or distinct lack thereof.

‘But it doesn’t make any sense,’ she tried to reason quickly, her hands now gesturing wildly as she sought to make him listen before he did whatever ridiculous thing she obviously thought he was going to do. Probably go storming through the alley in a volley of curses or something. ‘Dumbledore is the only man Voldemort has ever feared. Voldemort himself can’t kill him. So why would he send Malfoy, a sixteen year old Wizard who isn’t even qualified yet, to do it for him? It would be setting him up for failure, Harry.’

She had a point, and did he not know what he did he might have listened to her. It made sense, after all, since Malfoy was nothing but a pathetic snake clinging to his families name and influence. Without either of those he was just a scrawny, jumped up brat who would probably run and hide at the first sign of trouble, possibly cursing a few defenceless stragglers on the way. He gave orders of violence to bigger people, whilst he himself stood safely in the background. He was a coward, and did Harry not know better he wouldn’t have credited him with the guts to actually murder someone face to face, without the shield of so called friends to hide behind him. Unfortunately, he now knew better. ‘Yeah, but the thing is, you see, Malfoy isn’t going to fail.’

Hermione had all ready moved onto her next argument though. ‘How can you even be sure he is a Death Eater?’ she asked logically. It was slowly driving Harry absolutely barmy, especially since he knew Malfoy was so close and doing god only knew what. ‘Voldemort isn’t in the habit of recruiting children.’

‘He told me himself, he’s been marked all ready.’

‘But you’re changing things,’ Hermione reasoned. ‘Couldn’t you have changed this too?’

‘No.’

‘Why won’t you even consider…’

‘It hasn’t changed, Hermione, because it has all ready happened,’ Harry all but yelled in her face, taking a deep breath to calm himself as she backed off marginally in the face of his aggravation. ‘It happened before I ever saw that blasted Timeturner,’ he continued rather more glumly, ‘and before I ever saw all the miserable things that are going to happen. I can’t change the past.’

‘It just seems rather far fetched, is all.’ Hermione said defensively.

‘Really?’ his sarcasm came out more scornful than he had intended, as Hermione stiffened even more. ‘Because I always thought that visiting the future to learn about your own demise was a perfectly normal thing.’

‘We’ll talk to him, okay,’ Hermione was clearly trying to mollify him, but it still made Harry feel a bit better. He scuffed the tip of his trainer on the dusty street, ramming his hands deep into his pockets as he sighed heavily, wishing it could all be a little easier. At least when Voldemort was hunting him down he had a slightly clearer idea of what he was supposed to do. ‘I just don’t know what good it will do.’

He hated hearing how her words echoed his own worries. It was one thing for Malfoy to instruct Harry to change to fate of his younger self, but Harry had the distinct impression that Malfoy had had something of a different recollection when it came to exactly what his younger self had been like. ‘More good than if we ignored it and just hoped everything turns out all right.’ He affirmed, somewhat for his own sake. He all ready knew what would happen were he to leave things, and he doubted there could be consequences much worse than that.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ Hermione gave him a small smile, placing a cautious hand on his arm. ‘Just please, try to reason with him before you start throwing curses.’

‘Underage magic isn’t allowed, remember,’ Harry said, looking up through his fringe with a grin. ‘Couldn’t curse him even if I wanted too.’

‘Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better,’ Hermione commented with a grimace as they left the shadows they had been skulking in. The street wasn’t as crowded as Diagon Alley tended to be, but it was much narrower and even its few occupants left Harry feeling oppressively hemmed in. Hermione, to both his relief and consternation, seemed just as uncomfortable as he did, rubbing her arms as if cold as they started walking slowly past the dark shops. ‘I wish I’d brought my cloak,’ she muttered as they entered the alley proper, the noise of Diagon Alleys fading slightly into the background. ‘Somehow I don’t think muggle clothes exactly fit in here.’ Harry glanced down at his own baggy jeans, nodding in agreement.

‘If it looks bad, we’ll make a run for it,’ he assured her as they approached the shop he thought he had seen Malfoy duck into. ‘At least he didn’t want to go to far in.’ Hermione glanced over their shoulders as Harry peered through the grimy window, resting his hands on the sill in the hope the action made him look more relaxed and less suspicious.

‘Do you see him?’ Hermione leant closer to whisper in his ear, her eyes not straying from the street behind them.

‘Hard to tell,’ Harry admitted, balling his hand into a fist and rubbing it against the glass in the hope of creating a slightly cleaner spot, trying to give the impression of someone who was just trying to get a better look at the display. Not that he particularly wanted to look at the display, which seemed to consist largely of various shrunken and withered body parts. All he achieved was to smear more dirt on the all ready grimy window though, as he took a moment to look properly at the wooden beam on which he was resting, his nose screwing up in disgust at the layer of thick, black filth that covered it. ‘Urgh, does evil come with a no washing clause or something?’ He wiped his hand on his trousers, which had seen better days anyway and didn’t look any the worse for wear for it. ‘Lets just go in.’

‘Is that really a good idea?’ She was too late, as Harry had all ready stalked past her and pushed open the door, a rusty bell giving off a hollow chime as it swung inwards. ‘Harry, wait,’ she exclaimed urgently after him, running a hand through her hair before reluctantly following.

‘What are you doing here?’ Malfoy’s irritating drawl rang through the shop as Hermione entered. ‘And bringing mudbloods with you,’ he added as he caught sight of her, his face creasing in disgust. ‘I do apologise for the smell,’ he threw the comment loftily over his shoulder to where the store keeper was standing, although the man did no more than smile nervously in response.

‘We need to talk,’ Harry said sharply, his own nose crinkling with distaste as he looked round the shop. What he had seen in the window had nothing on some of the objects hanging on clear display inside. Oddly enough Malfoy looked quite out of place amidst it all, his immaculate robes having a sharp disparity to the musty interior.

‘I have nothing to say to you,’ Malfoy sneered.

Harry just shrugged and stalked across the shop, to Malfoy’s rising indignation, and grabbed his left wrist. Shocked at the unexpected move, Draco instantly tried to yank it out of his grip, twisted violently and snarling under his breath as he reached for his wand with his right. ‘Harry, you can’t do that!’ Hermione shrieked in the background as Harry backed Malfoy against the counter, knocking the breath out of him. Vials clinked together, the shopkeeper backing even further away as the struggle escalated when Harry tried to push up the sleeve covering Malfoy’s left arm. Between Malfoy’s violent protestations and his own annoyance it didn’t work, so he instead gave the thin material a sharp pull. A loud ripping sound accompanied the knee he received painfully in his thigh, and had Malfoy’s eyes widening in fear, frozen as a second yank had the fabric parting in a frayed line as the sleeve of his robe feel away revealing the mark that lay beneath. Hermione let out a gasp of shock as Harry stepped back with a knowing smirk. ‘Anything you want to say now?’

***


‘What are you doing here Snape, I know the Dark Lord didn’t summon you,’ Bella stepped out of the gloom that permeated the stretching, narrow hallways, her face eerily shadowed by the long mane of unruly hair she wore loose and tangled. ‘Not yet, at any rate,’ she added threateningly, a malicious smile curling her lips that was made even more so when she tilted her head upwards, her pale skin reflecting the low burning torches that lined the wall. ‘I’m sure it is only a matter of time though. He has a couple of questions I think we would all be interested to hear the answers too.’

‘I answer to our Lord and our Lord alone,’ Snape snarled in response, resuming his long stride. She matched it easily despite her noticeably shorter frame and the suddenness of his motion, the heels of her boots striking each step against the worn stone as she toyed with her wand, passing it from hand to hand with the occasional absent flourish. Given her penchant for randomly firing curses at her fellow Death Eaters, Snape briefly debated the wisdom of his next comment. ‘Unless you consider yourself more deserving of such information that I have?’ Infuriating the woman was worth the risk, he decided, especially since said risk was minimal. It was the lower ranks of the Death Eaters that felt the brunt of her nature more often than not, her actions all but actively encouraged by the Dark Lord himself. It was rare that she turned her wand against those of higher standing, however, although Snape was unsure whether this was out of deference to her Lord, or because she preferred a somewhat more helpless victim.

‘I think no such thing!’ Bella shrieked with predictable outrage, her thin fingers clawing his arm as she spun Snape to a halt. He twirled his wand lazily between his own fingers by way of a reply, quirking an eyebrow at the woman who slowly lowered hers back to her side, blasting a spider from the wall at his shoulder in anger and frustration. Evidently her time in Azkaban had not completely destroyed her ability for coherent thought. Bella could curse him, but unlike the majority of the cowering, snivelling excuses for Wizards who had sought to join the Dark Lord in recent months, Snape had no qualms about cursing her straight back. They would duel, and it would be a duel to the death, not because such a thing was expected of Death Eaters, but because Bella had no restraints and Snape had no desire to die. Fortunately Bella had recognised that such a thing would not be beneficial to either of them, whatever the outcome. The ranks of the Death Eaters were swelling, but the inner circle was not large enough itself that the Dark Lord would tolerate an essentially pointless loss. Not that Bellatrix hadn’t made it perfectly clear that she would consider the loss of Snape anything but pointless. Hatred and distrust clung to every word she spoke, even as her voice dropped into disgustingly false affability. ‘I am merely curious as to what happened to the mudblood girl I was promised last night,’ she crooned sweetly, trailing the tip of her wand up Snape’s arm in a manner that could almost have passed for seductive. ‘I was so looking forward to her.’

Snape forced back a shudder. He didn’t necessarily like the vast majority of the children he was forced to teach, but there was little they deserved less than to fall into the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange. He would wish her only upon those who had the misfortune to fall into the reach of Greyback instead. ‘I can only assume the mudblood you are referring to is one Hermione Granger.’ he sneered as Bella watched him with a predatory glint, forcing his own expression into one of absolute boredom before marching steadfastly, once again, towards his destination.

Bella’s displeasure at Snape’s comment was almost palpable in the chilly air as she shouted after him, footsteps sharp and echoing as she fought to catch up. ‘Then you know she escaped our Lord’s clutches in most mysterious circumstances.’

‘If you can call a handful of Auror’s mysterious,’ Snape sniffed dismissively, allowing himself a flash of selfish pleasure over the shock on the witches face. In many ways he was grateful that Bella had cornered him before he received the summons he had long been expecting. She was Slytherin, yes, but any cunning she may have held in her youth had been overwhelmed by her fanaticism and obsession, leaving her ruthless, but also as rash as any Gryffindor. There was no subtlety, just mindless viciousness. She would have expected him to deny all knowledge of the girl, completely oblivious to the fact that sometimes apparent ignorance could be more condemning than the truth itself. Not that she would ever believe him, no matter what he said, but every word would be repeated to the Dark Lord. And for all the Dark Lord favoured his little Bella, he was not blind to her faults. His own doubts would become less so hearing them from a woman whose sanity was sporadic at best, and whose litany of Snape’s impending betrayal had been heard too often to hold the weight it once did.

After all, the Dark Lord trusted him now. Snape had proven himself. Hopefully, one day, the nausea that knowledge promoted would lessen.

‘You have seen her?’ Bellatrix’ features had taken on a disturbing, hungry look that had Snape looking down his long nose at her in disgust he quickly disguised as jaded indifference.

‘Both the girl and her family arrived at the Order Headquarters yesterday evening only shortly after myself.’

‘Convenient, don’t you think.’

Snape sighed. ‘I think many things Bella, you will have to be more succinct if you expect me to know exactly which thoughts of mine you are referring too.’

‘You know exactly what I am talking about,’ Bella snapped. ‘Not minutes after you first hear of the attack and the girl is whisked away to safety,’ the accusation left here eyes only to be replaced with disturbing eagerness. ‘I cannot wait to see you try to talk your way our of this one.’

‘There is nothing for me to talk my way out of, as you so eloquently phrase it, since this is nothing more than unfortunate happenstance and some rather wild conjecture on your part.’

Bella didn’t appear convinced. Snape wondered whether even his appearance with the head of the girl on a silver plate would make her more so at this moment. ‘Such a pity the Dark Lord agrees with my concerns.’

‘I have no doubt the Dark Lord gives your concerns the same weight he does those of any of his followers who spent the last twelve years in Azkaban,’ Snape commented pointedly.

Bella spluttered soundlessly at the insult, her long fingers clawing impotently at the air at her side. ‘He knows I am loyal!’ she shrieked, her pace shortening in her outrage until she found herself several strides behind the potions master. She made up the distance with an impressive sound of fury, cloak spilling through the air behind her.

‘Your loyalty is not what I am questioning,’ Snape adopted the same tone he normally used on overwhelmed or homesick first years. Slytherin first years, he amended, as he treated Bella to a rare look of pity. ‘Merely your ability to think coherently for any stretch of time.’

Bella didn’t erupt as he had hoped. It seemed the madness brought on by the Dementors didn’t quite compare to the madness the woman herself had caused through the Cruciatus. The Longbottom’s would never wake from theirs, but nor could they say they saw justice since Bella still seemed able to function on an almost normal level at moments. Those moments didn’t seem as few and far between as they once had either. The witch could still be pushed into a blind rage, in which all capacity for reasoned thought left her, but the predictability of such rages was slowly waning. Instead she just treated to Snape a slow, probing look that weighed too heavily for comfort. ‘How else could the girl have escaped, unless you warned them?’ she questioned, as Snape felt a completely unrefined blow strike across his Occlumency walls. He batted it aside easily, sharing an incredulous look with an equally undaunted Bella.

‘The girl in question is a close friend of Potter,’ Snape said slowly, emphasising each word. He even slowed his pace again, coming to a halt and turning to face the woman who did no more than watch with anticipation. ‘I am sure that even Dumbledore, in all his blindness, would not have overlooked the precarious position in which that places both her and her family. No doubt the place was crawling with wards to rival that of Potter himself,’ he could see that was not the case immediately as Bella’s expression turned once again suspicious. He forged forward regardless. ‘You must admit, Bella, that you are not known for your stealth. You probably tripped several before you reached the front door.’

‘For all this security you speak of, Snape, there were no apparition barriers.’ Snape was shocked, not only at being proven so completely wrong, but at the knowledge the Headmaster had left the girl so utterly unprotected. ‘We discovered this when we apparated directly into an empty house. That is something of an oversight, wouldn’t you agree?’ Yes, he did agree, wholeheartedly. He felt faintly sick at what might have happened had he trusted to Albus foresight and not risked his position so completely. At least he now knew his actions had not been a waste, however, no matter what they led to. ‘So I ask you again, how did they know we were coming?’

‘I do not know, Bella,’ Snape snapped angrily. ‘I was not there, as you may recall.’

Something in his voice must have surprised her, possibly even satisfied her. Maybe it was the raging hatred he felt towards the Headmaster at this moment seeping into his tone. Whatever it was Bella’s questioning shifted footing. ‘Perhaps you can tell me why you are here instead then?’

‘I would have thought you knew the answer to that better than I, since it was your own sister who requested my presence…’

‘Oh no,’ Bella interrupted as she stepped angrily in front of him to block his path once again. Real murder flashed in her eyes this time though. ‘You are not dragging Cissy down with you.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Hasn’t she suffered enough, with her failure of a husband locked away?’ Bella didn’t seemed inclined to hear him any more as her annoyance escalated. The shadows under her eyes seemed to stretch also as she descended into mindless muttering. This was the woman who had spent years in the loving hands of the Dementors. ‘She doesn’t need you, no matter what she may have convinced herself. I keep telling her, she should be proud, proud and willing…’

‘So this is about Draco then.’ Snape sneered, pushing past the woman and continuing down the corridor. He had suspected it would be.

‘What do you know about it?’ Bella had her wand aimed at his back.

‘The Dark Lord is, on occasion, known to share information with others beyond just yourself.’

‘But you,’ Bella shook her head as though to dislodge a traitorous thought. ‘It is a mistake,’ she shouted after his retreating figure.

It was surprise that stopped him this time, surprise that Bella would ever consider her Master could be wrong in anything as he stalked back to where she stood, tall, proud and completely and utterly mad. ‘I have proven my loyalty,’ he said disdainfully, as Bella tilted her head back regally to look at him. ‘Not only in the things I have done, but in those I will do.’

Bella just looked, if possible, more contemptuous at his words. ‘Oh yes, dearest, darling Severus, and how lucky it is for you that your future is apparently filled with more worth than you ever managed in your past.’ There was a trace of bitterness in her own voice, coupled with a nasty sneer. ‘Was it comfortable holed up in Hogwarts for all that time whilst the truly worthy of us all but perished in Azkaban in the name of our Lord?’

‘Yes,’ he said simply. His stay in the prison had been brief, but long enough for him to realise that, in comparison, almost anywhere else could be considered comfortable. ‘Regular meals, warm rooms and the unmistakable absence of Dementors. Which one of those, exactly, am I supposed to object too?’

‘You’ve been living out of the hand of Dumbledore, like his little pet dog,’ Bella spat at his feet with disgust. ‘To me that says something about where your loyalties really lie.’

‘I am a spy. Unsurprisingly the position requires I stay close to those I am supposed to be spying on,’ Snape drew his cloak round him with a snap, turning on his heel with the intention of finally leaving the loathsome woman behind. She wouldn’t leave him though, certainly not now she knew where he was going. ‘I will not justify myself to you again,’ he offered to fill the expectant silence that hovered between the two of them, ‘and, to be honest, I am getting a little bored with answering the same questions over and over. You were there when the Dark Lord himself asked them. Do you think I could lie to him?’

Bella’s answer was chilling. ‘I think you would give it a damn good try.’

‘This does not concern you,’ Snape sighed with annoyance as he stopped outside the door he had been seeking. He would rather not have met Narcissa here, but the Manor was watched too closely since the arrest of Lucius, making their meeting in such a place suspicious. Narcissa herself seemed to be spending more and more time away from their home anyway, claiming the absence of her husband coupled with her son’s return to school left the house strangely empty. That she sought out the company of her sister in her loneliness was not what Snape would have wished for her. He knocked politely on the door as he hissed under his breath. ‘So either leave, or shut that infernal mouth of yours.’ Bella didn’t have time to respond, as the door opened.

Severus couldn’t help but frown. He had known Narcissa, both as an acquaintance and from afar, for many years. They had never been close, but there was a mutual respect that could almost pass for friendship at first glance. He had never before seen her look so troubled, look anything other than the picture of immaculate beauty that was expected of her. Now though she looked harassed and anxious, her eyes rimmed with red from where she had been crying, her hair dishevelled, wisps flying erratically around her pale face. ‘Narcissa,’ he said softly; she looked as if a sudden, loud noise was all that was needed to tip her over the edge. ‘It is wonderful to see you.’

‘Severus…’

‘Should not be welcome here,’ Bella interrupted nastily, casting Snape a spiteful look as though he were the one responsible for the state of her sister, and pushing her way into the room. ‘Haven’t I told you Cissy? I will take care of it all.’ She fussed ineffectually over her sister for a moment, snarling at an indifferent Snape the whole time.

‘Last I looked, Bella, you were hardly in a position to be wandering the halls of Hogwarts.’ Narcissa said gently, her poise only slightly blemished by the almost unnoticeable shake in her voice as she sank back into the soft sofa. ‘There is little you can do to help in this instance.’

‘But this is mad,’ Bella howled mournfully, petting Narcissa’s unruly hair, smoothing it back into a semblance of order. Narcissa smiled slightly at the motion, patting Bella’s free hand with her own in a small gesture of returned comfort. ‘That you would trust him with your only son.’

‘The Dark Lord himself has all ready entrusted me with the task of ensuring Draco’s progress throughout the year,’ Snape offered superciliously, drawing the attention of both Black’s, one of whom glared hatefully, the other who looked both relieved by the news, and horrified at the same time. ‘I was not aware those orders were up for debate, however if you would prefer I not accept such an undertaking I will, of course, be happy to voice your concerns on your behalf.’

‘Those orders may well be up for consideration given some of the unresolved issues at hand,’ Bella barked.

‘So you keep repeating. When exactly should I expect these summons then, Bella? I will endeavour to keep my schedule free.’ Their bickering was stopped as Narcissa let out a gentle sob, muffled by her hand as she pulled away from the both, perching on the far edge of the sofa. Her breathing was heavy as Snape sighed in exasperation, rolling his eyes as he stalked across the room, pouring a generous glass from a decanter sitting on a high shelf, and following with a second, slightly smaller serving. He thrust the lesser of the two glasses into Narcissa’s hand, downing the other in one long gulp that burnt at the back of his throat. If he was forced to deal with crying women, he would be damned if he was going to do it sober.

‘My Draco is going to die, isn’t he,’ it wasn’t so much of a question.

‘There is a chance.’

‘There is more than a chance, and you know it,’ Narcissa sniffed, although the tears had, at least, been short lived. ‘I had hoped it would not come to pass, that the instructions were not serious; but if you are involved…’ She trailed off. It had been a naïve and foolish hope, but not one Snape could necessarily fault her for. ‘The Dark Lord himself has failed it innumerable times.’ Her expression became horribly disturbing, of one who has realised the unfairness of their fate and knows they are powerless to change it. ‘This is not a test of loyalty or anything else you might want to call it; it is punishment. Punishment for Lucius’ failure.’ She looked rather more desperate now, wild and trapped as she stared at Snape, pleading him for an answer.

‘Lucius was weak,’ Bella declared haughtily when Snape failed to form a suitable response, as though her words were exactly what her sister needed to hear to cheer her up. Narcissa looked away from him at that moment, closing her eyes, her shoulders shaking beneath her pale robes. ‘He was weak and he was stupid, and if he ever gets out of Azkaban I will kill him myself for what he has done to you.’ Narcissa just shook her head frantically, weeping quietly again.

Snape could see what was coming next, as Bella looked ready to launch into her next tirade of revenge for slights against the Black name. ‘Funny,’ he interrupted, not because he necessarily wanted to draw himself even further into it, but because he needed to speak to Narcissa, and he could not successfully do so whilst her sister caused her more grief, regardless of intention. ‘But I seem to recall you were also present at the fiasco at the Ministry. Would that not make a share of the responsibility yours?’

‘I managed to kill that ingrate of a cousin, didn’t I?’ she tossed back furiously. ‘It’s more than Lucius managed.’

‘Yet the children still managed to escape you,’ Snape shook his head pityingly, relaxing back into a padded armchair and assuming a position of reclined authority. The alcohol had not had the affect he had hoped for. Instead of muting reality it had instead given it a grating edge, Bella’s harsh voice now severely jarring his nerves. ‘I had no idea Hogwarts was teaching it’s students to be so formidable.’

‘Dumbledore…he.’

‘Saved them? Yes, eventually,’ Snape gestured facetiously. ‘I believe they evaded you by their own means for long enough to cause embarrassment though, wouldn’t you agree?’ He smiled, an expression that often disconcerted himself as much as it did others.

‘At least I was there,’ Bella suddenly shouted. ‘Where were you? At Hogwarts, that’s where, getting all cosy.’

Snape sat forwards in the chair, eyes intense as he fixed them on her. ‘Had I not been at Hogwarts, Potter would never have made it to the Ministry in the first place.’

‘And that’s what you told the Dark Lord, is it? Never mind that you could snatch the boy out from under the nose of the old fool any time you wanted.’

‘If that were indeed true, our Lord would have issued orders for me to do so by now.’

‘How do I know he hasn’t, and that you haven’t made your usual, pathetic excuses.’

‘But I though you knew everything, that as his most trusted servant our Lord confided his every thought to you,’ Snape smirked at Bella’s silent outrage, a small noise dragging their attention apart.

‘I never wanted Draco here, you know,’ Narcissa admitted quietly, interrupting them both, Bella instantly returning to her fretful fussing as Snape swivelled slightly in his seat to face her. ‘I wanted to keep him away from such things, but he has always admired his father so. He thinks it is a gift, this opportunity, but he never looks far enough ahead. He thinks he is protecting me.’

‘If I had a son I would be proud to have him serve my Lord in such a way.’ Bella’s voice was coloured with a hint of disapproval at her sister’s words, causing Snape inexplicable rage that the woman could be so callous.

‘But you do not have a son, do you Bella,’ he sneered. ‘And how many years have you been married now? Surely that should have been plenty of time for you to mother a small army for service. Or are the rumours of you and the Dark Lord true?’ Snape allowed a small, vindictive smile to twist his lips. ‘I have often wondered why he intervened to save you from the Ministry above all the others who failed so miserably at your side.’

‘Blasphemy!’ Bella shrieked, jumping to her feet, finger hovering accusingly in the air between them. ‘How dare you talk behind my Masters back in such a way?’

‘Last I looked our Lord was no God, Bella, which makes it disrespectful at it’s very worst, but not blasphemous. Not quite yet.’

‘I will see you dead before the day is out, Snape.’ Bella hissed. She didn’t move or flinch away at all when Snape rose slowly to his feet, towering imperiously over her.

‘And how do you plan to achieve that?’ His voice was soft and low, dripping smoothly from his tongue as he took a step forwards. ‘Do you honestly believe the Black name carries the same worth it once did?’ Narcissa sat up stiffly at the words, her face still streaked with dried tears even as Bella snarled under her breath, prowling in front of Snape. ‘One Gryffindor blood traitor, and one equally disloyal but no less dead brother; not to mention your very own sister.’ Bella let out a screech of angry distress, her hands rising to clutch at her ears as though the action would stop Snape from speaking. ‘Eloped with a common muggle, didn’t she. Perhaps the other rumour is true instead then, that Andromeda hit you with a nasty hex to leave you barren and childless in thanks for all you did for her.’ Snape cocked his head slightly, eyebrows raised mockingly before he jabbed an accusing finger in her direction. ‘Your family has not served the Dark Lord well in recent years,’ his tone was hard as he leant forwards until his face was mere inches from Bella’s, lit with contempt, ‘and you would do well to stop spreading vicious little lies about me lest our Master look more closely at exactly how many times your blood has betrayed him.’ Snape stopped suddenly as he felt the tip of a wand pressing into the soft underside of his neck.

‘Do not forget this is my family of which you speak also,’ Narcissa said softly from her seat, her eyes still bright with unshed tears, but also cold and unforgiving. ‘Marriage is all that keeps me from bearing the name you so casually slander. Press me and I may be forced to take a little more interest in your own family.’ She glided to her feet in a fluid motion, her wand not moving as Snape swallowed reflexively against it. ‘Snape is no pureblood name with which I am familiar, and I know all about the little nickname you gave yourself in school.’ Her eyes widened meaningfully for a second.

‘Are you suggesting…is he?’ Bella looked up with mingled horror and sadistic glee, her own humiliation forgotten.

‘I am no half-blood, if that is what you are thinking,’ Snape managed to sneer.

‘But you must have some muggle ancestry, at the very least.’

‘Far enough back that my blood is considered pure enough to serve our Lord.’ Snape said smoothly. ‘You think he has not raised these same issues? I am not proud of it, but there is little I can do to change the foolishness of those in the past.’ Bella still looked unconvinced, her forehead creased in consideration.

‘You’re lying,’ she said brusquely. Snape cast her an irritable glower.

‘You would declare the sky were orange merely to contradict me, Bella, so forgive me if I do not give your incessant ramblings the credit you no doubt feel they deserve.’ The wand was removed from his throat, and Snape raised a hand to rub at it gingerly, his fingers feeling the bruise it had left and wincing.

‘He isn’t lying, Bella,’ Narcissa’s comment took him by surprise, said softly and with infinite tiredness that sounded in sharp contrast to her prior threat. Her defence of him when she had had her wand lodged in his neck not seconds prior was also somewhat odd. He turned to regard her warily, receiving no more than a small smile in recognition. The two of them had never been particularly close, associated only through the man she had married, and the woman had no less reason to curse him than to defend him. ‘Lucius knew you for how long?’

‘Long enough,’ he replied tersely.

Narcissa smiled again, warm and loving in thought of her husband. It was an expression that was difficult to relate with the fact that she had willing and happily married a Death Eater, and aided in raising a second. ‘He used to speak much of you, back in those days.’ The days when their ideology had been much easier to defend; when Snape himself had truly believed in what the Dark Lord wanted to achieve. After all, he had experienced first hand what muggles were capable of, and had had no desire to see the world that was his escape tainted by the same mindless hatred and violence, did not want to see it slowly infused into society through every muggleborn that attended. He had been quickly disillusioned: the brutality existed there all ready. ‘That name amused him no end.’

Snape scoffed dismissively. ‘It was meant as an insult to my father, not to cater to the humour of your husband.’

‘Nevertheless he appreciated the irony behind it.’

‘I have no doubt.’

In reaction to his cold tone Narcissa pulled herself up proudly to her usual bearing, aloof and untouchable, although her eyes still contained a hint of warmth. ‘So, do you two think you can stop bickering like a pair of children for long enough for me to explain why I asked Severus here?’ she aimed the comment primarily at Bella, taking the following silence as affirmation before she turned back to Snape. ‘Good,’ one of her hands reached out to grasp his in an unusual display of affection, or desperation. Snape resisted the urge to shake it off. Such displays and manipulations were beneath her, but something in the way the fingers grasped round his own held him back from such an outright dismissal. ‘I want to you look out for my son.’

He did draw his hand back at those words. Did the woman think it was amusing to waste his time and potentially jeopardise his position in such a way as to call him for such a frivolous and unnecessary reason? ‘As I previously mentioned, I have all ready been ordered to do so.’ He exhaled at Narcissa’s hard look, softening slightly as he reminded himself that what stood before him was not the wife of Lucius Malfoy, but a concerned mother. ‘Not to mention that I would do so regardless,’ he added, reaching out to enclose her abandoned hand between his once again, feeling the warmth seep into her cold skin. ‘I am…fond of him, and would do what I could to ensure his safety for that reason alone.’

‘That is not good enough,’ Narcissa demanded. ‘I want more.’

‘Exactly what more do you think I have to give?’

‘An Unbreakable Vow,’ Narcissa’s voice cracked only slightly as she lifted her head proudly, meeting his gaze and ready to take the refusal she believed was coming. ‘To protect my son, as you have so repeatedly said you will. If you would indeed do so regardless,’ she added shrewdly, calling Snape on his own words, ‘then the vow itself should be of little consequence.’

Snape cursed himself for his prior words of comfort, which had been meant as only that, not as a weapon to be used against him. ‘Bella will be our bonder?’ Narcissa’s eyes widened only slightly at his unexpected, implied agreement, as if there had really been any option for him to deny her.

‘I see no one else in this room.’

‘Very well,’ Snape knelt gracefully, releasing one of his hands from hers, clasping firmly with the one that remained as he raised an eyebrow in question to her following suit. She did, her skin now faintly clammy against his own in the cool air of the room, her robes pooling dramatically on the floor round her. Bella had drawn her wand and stood over their clenched hands with an air of disbelief. ‘The terms?’ The wand tip rested gently against the tips of his fingers. Snape tried not to think about the number of Unforgivables that had passed through it.

He instead focused on the lilting of Narcissa’s voice, hard and determined. ‘Will you, Severus, watch over my son throughout the course of the year?’

‘I will.’ He tried not to sneer at the waste of a promise. He was bound by the Dark Lord to do as such all ready.

‘Will you guide him towards success, teach him all he needs to know?’

Clearly Narcissa had not learnt her husband’s natural flair for twisting his words to their required purpose. Worry and love for her son was making her stupid, was leading her to waste the opportunity in a way Snape almost found inexcusable. ‘I will.’

‘And will you protect him, with your very life if need be, from any possible harm that may befall him,’ Narcissa’s gaze became pleading in that moment, truly distraught in a way no one could hope to fake. Snape felt his heart clench. Narcissa had love for few people, and those she did not love she would gladly sacrifice in the name of those she did. Snape was fully aware that he fell into the latter category of people. She would have him promise the impossible with little concern for his imminent failure, and the price thereof. ‘The Dark Lord has vowed death to us both should he fail, and whilst I would consider my life more than adequate payment for that of my son, Draco does not agree.’ For a moment it seemed she might cry again, but instead she took a deep breath, pulling herself rigidly upright. ‘I wanted him to run, but he will not, so now there is no choice. You must see to it, Severus, you must see to it that he does not fail.’

He didn’t have time to assess all the implications of the request. Bella was watching him expectantly; the Vow itself was waiting impatiently for its completion. He had no choice.

He chose.

‘I will.’

A thick cord of light sprang from the tip of the wand, blazing red as it wound round their hand and wrists, sealing them together before disappearing beneath the skin. He felt it burn there for a moment, a glowing trail that remained almost comforting until it reached out with claws and teeth and sunk itself into his heart. Snape pitched forward, hand clutching at his chest as above him Bella smirked and crowed.

‘Tut tut, Sevvie dear, it seems that no one taught you not to make promises you can’t keep,’ Bella giggled maliciously as Narcissa tried to help Snape to his feet before rounding on her sister with the air of one who has just had all their ignored concerns proven right. ‘I told you he didn’t want Draco to succeed,’ she accused. ‘He wants to protect that old fool of a Headmaster, no matter what happens to the rest of us. You have sentenced yourself, sister dear, and when the Dark Lord hears of what you have done…’ Narcissa waved Bella into silence.

‘What is happening?’ she asked frantically as Snape clutched her arm. An Unbreakable Vow knew no mercy; it punished failure, but in doing so it had given him a remote chance.

‘Where is Draco?’ he managed to gasp.

‘Diagon Alley,’ Narcissa replied. ‘Purchasing his school supplies for the year.’ Snape frowned slightly, pulling himself upright although he still lent heavily on her slight frame. The content of the final vow still spun in his head as he considered the innumerable ways it could be broken, and the necessity of the most obvious of these. He was not the only one to have made a pledge to save Draco, and in different circumstances he might have laughed at the irony that the two promises swore such completely different outcomes.

‘We must go to him,’ he almost fell again as the light pierced another burning trail through his chest. Bella’s grip on her wand tightened as though to accompany them.

‘My sister is not going anywhere without me, especially not with you.’

‘But you are a wanted woman, dearest Bellatrix,’ Snape managed to chuckle hollowly. ‘Whilst I can fully be expected to appear in such a crowded place with the mother of one of my students in my company, I might struggle to explain why we were also accompanied by a murderous madwoman.’

‘This is some elaborate scheme of yours and that fool Dumbledore,’ Bella sounded unsure as Snape bent over double again, his breath panting.

‘I do not have the time to argue with you,’ he snarled. ‘We must leave now.’

‘Do you know what is happening to my son?’ Narcissa questioned frantically as Snape nodded.

‘Potter,’ he managed to sneer. He only had a suspicion, a guess at best, but it was an educated guess And at the end of the day he didn’t need to be sure. Eventually everything bad that happened to him always came back to Potter.

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